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Gated “Monaco” Lake Las Vegas Homesites Looking West on Grand Corniche Drive, Bankrupt MonteLago Village and Ponte Vecchio Bridge Beyond, Henderson, Nevada (2010)

Photographer Michael Light divides his time between San Francisco and a remote house hear Mono Lake, on the eastern flank—and in the shadow—of the Sierra Nevada. An artist widely known for his aerial work, Light flies the trip himself in a small airplane, usually departing very early in the morning, near dawn, before the turbulence builds up.

Michael Light preps his airplane for flight; photo by Venue.

Venue not only had the pleasure of flying around Mono Lake with Light, but of staying in his home for a few nights and learning more, over the course of several long conversations, about his work.

We took a nighttime hike and hunted for scorpions in the underbrush; we looked at aerial maps of the surrounding area—in fact, most of the U.S. Southwest—to discuss the invisible marbling of military & civilian airspace in the region; and we asked Light about his many projects, their different landscape emphases, the future of photography as a pursuit and profession, and what projects he might take on next.

Flying with Michael Light over Mono Lake; photos by Venue.

From SCUBA diving amidst the nuked ruins of WWII battleships in the most remote waters of the Pacific Ocean to spending years touching up and republishing photos of U.S. nuclear weapons tests for a spectacular and deeply unsettling book called 100 Suns, to his look at the Apollo program of the 1960s as an endeavor very much focused on the spatial experience of another landscape—the lunar surface—to his ongoing visual investigation of housing, urbanization, and rabid over-development in regions like Phoenix and Las Vegas, Light's own discussion of and perspective on his work was never less than compelling.

Thoughtful about the history of landscape representation and the place of his work within it, highly articulate—indeed, it's hard to forget such phrases as "the mine is a city reversed," or that the sunken ruins of WWII battleships "are dissolving like Alka-Seltzer" in the depths of the Pacific—and with an always caustic sense of humor, Light patiently answered our many questions about his work both above the ground and below sea level.

We discussed the overlapping physical pleasures of flying and SCUBA diving, how nuclear weapons have transformed the Western notion of the landscape sublime, what cameraphones are doing to the professional photographer, and what it means to transgress into today's corporate-controlled air spaces above vast mining and extraction sites in the West.

Shadow at 300’, 1300 hours, Deep Springs Valley, CA (2001)

Finally, for those of you in or around New York City this month, Light coincidentally has a new exhibition opening at the Danziger Gallery on October 30. Check back with the gallery's website for more information as the opening approaches.

• • •

Geoff Manaugh: I’d like to start by asking how the aerial view ties into the nature of your work in general. You’ve spoken to William L. Fox in an interview for the Some Dry Space exhibition about a feeling of spatial “delirium,” suggesting that the experience of moving through the sky is something viscerally attractive to you. I’m curious if you could talk about that, as a physical sensation, but also about the representational effects of the bird’s eye—or pilot’s eye—view and how it so thoroughly changes the appearance of a landscape.

Clouds Over the Jonah Natural Gas Field, Pinedale, WY (2007)

Michael Light: The short answer is that the aerial view affords a breadth of scale that offers direct access to many of the bigger, more “meta” themes that have always been of interest to me.

But let me take a few steps back and try to explain where all this came from. I got a B.A. in American Studies from Amherst many years ago, and I have since been an Americanist—not in the sense of being an apologist for America, but in the sense of someone trying to figure out what makes this country tick. It is a very, very vast country.

Sheep Hole Mountains at 400’, 0700 hours, Twentynine Palms, CA (2000)

I grew up on the end of Long Island, and I was always getting onto Highway 80 or onto more southerly interstates and heading west. The metaphor that always accompanied me, oddly enough, was one of falling into America rather than crossing it. I was falling into the vastness of America and the sheer scale of it.

Of course, after I moved to California in 1986, I caught myself coming back east quite a bit, for family or for work, and those commercial air flights across the nation, flying coast to coast, were formative and endlessly interesting to me. I don’t ever lower the window shade as requested. If the weather is clear, the odds are that what’s unfolding below, geologically, is the main attraction for me. I just found myself looking down—or looking into—America a lot, and that sense of falling into the country just grew and evolved.

I did a big piece back in the 1990s, when I was still in graduate school. It took a couple of years, but I figured out how to make pretty decent images from 30,000 feet, from the seat of a commercial airliner. For instance, you have to sit in front of the engine so that the heat doesn’t blow the picture; and it’s a contrast game, trying to get enough clarity through all the atmospheric haze and through two layers of plexiglass, and so on and so forth. That piece was based specifically on commercial flights and it was liberating for me in lots of ways.

While working on one of those images, in particular, I had something of an epiphany—I think it was somewhere over Arizona. It’s very spare, arid country, and the incursions of human settlement into it that you see from above look very much like a colony on Mars might look, or the proverbial lunar colony, and I thought “Ah ha! Look at that!” And I realized, at that moment, that maybe I could try to find or document something like a planetary landscape: the way humans live at a planetary scale and through planetary settlements.

Chidago Canyon at 500’, 1800 hours, Chalfant, CA (2001)

This was what got me, pretty soon thereafter, thinking above and beyond the earth: looking toward NASA, and their various programs over the past few decades, and that eventually became Full Moon.

FULL MOON: Composite of David Scott Seen Twice on Hadley Delta Mountain; Photographed by James Irwin, Apollo 15, 1971 (1999)

Manaugh: There’s an interesting book called Moondust by Andrew Smith, which began with Smith’s realization that we are soon approaching an historical moment when every human being who has walked on the moon will be dead. He set about trying to interview every living person—every American astronaut—who has set foot there. What makes it especially fascinating is that Smith portrays the entire Apollo program as a kind of vast landscape project, or act of landscape exploration, as if the whole thing had really just been at attempt at staging a real-life Caspar David Friedrich painting with seemingly endless Cold War funds to back it up. The place of Full Moon in your own work seems to echo that idea, of NASA lunar photography as something like the apotheosis of American natural landscape photography.

Light: The Apollo program was absolutely a landscape project—but also an extreme aerial project. And Full Moon, of course, was also driven by my own interest in the aerial view, or the aerial exterior. That project is nothing if not a really serious exploration of the aerial: that is, if you keep going up and up, the world becomes quite circular and alien. You see the world quite literally as a planet.

FULL MOON: The Ocean of Storms and the Known Sea; Photographed by Kenneth Mattingly, Apollo 16, April 16-27, 1972 (1999)

Anyway, for me, yes, the aerial view has an intense physicality. I’ve been flying planes since before I was driving. I soloed in gliders—engineless aircraft—by 14, and, by 16, I had a private pilot’s license. A glider offers a particularly intimate and very physical way of flying, because you have to work with thermals and updrafts. You don’t have an engine. You actually want it to be turbulent and bumpy up there, because that means that the air is unstable—that parts of the atmosphere are going up and other parts are going down—and, if you can stay in those up parts and find the updrafts, then you can ride it out for hours.

Also, I was lucky enough to start SCUBA diving at the age of 9.

Michael Light at 9 years old, Bimini, Bahamas (1972)

Flying and going underwater are completely connected, at least in my mind. The three-dimensionality of each of them is something I’ve experienced from a very early age, and it is one of my greatest ongoing pleasures. I would say that there’s a tremendous amount of physical pleasure in both—and that, occasionally, it would even be accurate to call it ecstasy.

It’s like skiing or long-distance running: everything’s in the groove, everything sort of falls into place, you’re flying really beautifully, or, oftentimes in my work, you’re transgressing over something, or you’ve got a very intense subject, and you are trying to figure something out as an artist or as a citizen.

Michael Light at 49 years old, Petaluma, CA (2012)

You mentioned delirium. There’s also a certain kind of delirium—a spatial delirium, sure—simply in the pleasure of learning something new and, for me, hopefully putting that 3-dimensional experience into 2-dimensional photographic form. And if it’s good—if the image is good—then hopefully other people can get some of what I got.

Manaugh: This reminds me of a conversation I had with a writer named Kitty Hauser about the history of aerial archaeology. To make a long story short, aerial archaeology, using photographs, was born from military reconnaissance flights over the European front in World War I. The pilots there began noticing that they could see features in the landscape—such as buried or ruined buildings—that were invisible from the ground. When that technique of viewing from above was later exported to England, particularly as the leisure classes and retired military types found the free time and the personal wealth to purchase private airplanes, aerial archaeology as a pursuit really took off, if you’ll excuse the pun. And these early pioneers began to realize that, for example, there are certain times of day when things are more clearly revealed by the angle of the sun, including shadows appearing in wheat and barley fields that, when seen from above, are revealed to be an archaeological site otherwise hidden beneath the plant life. I’m curious how coming back to the same locations at certain times of day, or in certain kinds of light, can make sites or landscapes into radically different photographic experiences—with different depths or different reliefs—and how you plan for that in your shots.

Light: If I go out on an expedition for weeks shooting with an assistant, I don’t immediately fall into that groove. A few days in, everything will align. It certainly is a kind of discipline. You’re flying and imaging and circling—again and again and again, around and around and around—because you can’t just move the camera two inches to the left, or wait 15 minutes. You’re moving along at 60 miles an hour through space. So you have to shoot it again and again and again, until, finally, you get to a point where your physical senses are moving faster than your mind, and you’ve made all the shots that you think you should make—which are generally the worst ones—and it’s at that point that you come up with something genuinely new.

Specifically, I tend to shoot early in the morning and then again in the evening, which is pretty much standard practice because, of course, the lower axial light gives that 3-dimensionality and creates a feeling of revelation. Every once in a while, though, I will shoot in the desert at midday, but it’s usually only when I’m specifically seeking a flat, blown out, almost stunning or hallucinatory light.

Deep Springs Valley at 500’, 1600 hours, Big Pine, CA (2001)

But, early in the morning, the sun seems to go off in the desert like a gun—and, of course, the sun is much softer in the evening, because there’s so much more dust in the air. You really have to get up early. I’ll shoot for an hour and a half, which is all I can really take with the doors off of the aircraft. It’s very windy. It’s very intense. The camera I use is about 20 pounds. So we’ll come back and we’ll have some breakfast—and I’m exhausted. I’ll probably nap around noon for an hour or two then, come 4:00pm or so, we gather our forces and go back up.

It’s always much more turbulent in the afternoon in summer. Summer is when I tend to fly, though, because, of course, in the colder months it’s just too cold. It’s also just a lot more dangerous to cross the mountains when there’s snow on them.

But, on summer afternoons, it can be a wild ride. You strap in there tight. My glider background is helpful here; I know the plane will continue to fly, for instance, and that there’s nothing to be super-scared of. I know I’m at the edges of my equipment’s performance. The specifications on the plane degrade measurably when you take the doors off, because you generate a tremendous amount of drag. In hot temperatures, the engine also tends to run hot and, the hotter the summer air is, the fewer molecules there are under the wings of the aircraft, the fewer molecules there are to combust with the engine fuel, the fewer molecules there are for the propeller to bite into, and you get much more turbulent air. Your aircraft performance falls off measurably.

Afternoon Thunderstorm Looking West, Near Rock Springs, WY (2007)

For example, I often fly from San Francisco over the Sierras to Mono Lake in the summer. The Sierras, on the west side, have a very gradual slope. But on the east side it’s a very dramatic, very steep escarpment. It’s a drop of 7,000 feet almost in a straight line. You have a very smooth, very fast trip up the western slope, but, when you get to the escarpment, you hit what’s called a “rotor.” That’s a very turbulent place where the usual land-to-airflow relationship completely falls apart, because the support has been taken away. For those five miles or so, going east, you’re in a tumbly, sometimes chaotic atmosphere and it can be extremely dangerous, depending on the speed of the wind.

When I hit the rotor, I just think of it in terms of river rafting: looking for eddies, back-flow currents, whirlpools, and so forth. Even though it’s invisible, I know where I’m going to hit turbulence. Even though I can’t see the air, I know, extrapolating from the way that water behaves, where the turbulence will be—like, beyond that rock mountain spire over there, it’s going to be gnarly.

City-Owned Motocross Park Looking North, I-70 Beyond, Lakewood, CO (2009)

To go back to your question: in the six, almost seven years I’ve been flying with engines, the landscape is so perceptually dependent on the type of light that’s illuminating it. You really do get radically different spaces in different kinds of light. A different kind of vibe. Seasons will also change the way a landscape looks—or, I should say, the light itself seasonally changes.

On an artistic level, the ever-changing nature of what I do and how I do it, and even the instability of my position in the sky over the landscape—it’s all part of my process and it’s something I enjoy.

Manaugh: Let’s go back to SCUBA diving. When we talked four or five years ago in Nevada, you were heading off to the Bikini Atoll, to dive amidst the ruins of U.S. warships, and I’d love to learn more about that project. How did it come about, what were you seeking to document, and what were the results? I’m also fascinated by analogy of being in the empty volume of the sky versus being buried in the very full volume of the ocean and how that affects the sense of space in your photography.

Light: The Bikini work grew out of my earlier involvement with imagery of nuclear detonations, which, as you know, was a project called 100 Suns. That was an archival endeavor that came out in 2003.

100 Suns (2003)

As a photographer or maker of images, I’m always as interested in trying to figure out the meaning of the trillions of photographs that have already been made as I am in making new ones of my own. And, culturally, I find it interesting to think about the meaning of photography, in the very large American contexts of Full Moon and 100 Suns. I think of both projects as landscape projects and, certainly, they are also investigations into American power and the peculiarities of American scale.

Nicola Twilley: As a side note, how does an archival project like 100 Suns work, technically, as far as reproducing the images goes?

Light: You scan them. You go in and you clean them up. You do whatever the approach of the hour is. You wind up almost lovingly inside each of the historical photographs. And you get very fond of them; you think of them almost as your own. Of course, they’re not—primarily because you haven’t had the experience of actually going to that space at that particular time and choosing how to make that image.

But I had a very strong desire to go—to make a pilgrimage—to, if not the Nevada Test Site, which I never could get into, then at least to the Pacific Proving Grounds, which I could get to. I tried to get into the Nevada Test Site. You can visit it, physically, but to get over it—in the air—and to make images is basically impossible. The last person to get permission to do that was Emmet Gowin, with his remarkable images. He got in in the 1990s. It took him a decade, and that was before 9/11. I tried again, and I was negotiating directly with the head of the site, but I just could never do it.

However, one can get out to Bikini, and the way one gets to Bikini hasn’t changed. At the time I went, there was a dive operation there run by the people of Bikini—who actually live 500 miles away, on a rather awful rock without a lagoon, in a place that they were moved to in 1945. They were basically booted off their atoll by the U.S. government. The people run this dive operation really for propaganda reasons, using it as a method to tell their story.

Bikini Island, Radioactively Uninhabitable Since 1954, Bikini Atoll (2003)

What one goes to dive for there are ships that were sunk in the Operation Crossroads tests of 1946.

At that point, the U.S. Navy—this was, of course, right after Hiroshima and Nagasaki—wanted to know if naval warfare was now utterly obsolete. Could a single bomb destroy an entire navy or a flotilla of ships?

100 SUNS: 058 BAKER/21 kilotons/Bikini Atoll/1946 (2003)

So they gathered almost 100 vessels for the tests, making all sorts of strange, mythic gestures. For instance, they brought the Nagato, which Admiral Yamamoto was on when he orchestrated the attack on Pearl Harbor. They brought that all the way from Tokyo. They brought out the Prinz Eugen from Germany, which was Germany’s most modern battleship. They brought the first American aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Saratoga, out.

The ships they chose were these giant wartime icons, and they were bombed both from the air, with the Able test, and from 90 feet underwater, by the Baker test. The Baker test gave us the most spectacularly iconic images of Bikini: a water column being blasted up into the sky with the Wilson bell cloud around it that we all know so well.

100 SUNS: 059 BAKER/21 kilotons/Bikini Atoll/1946 (2003)

Those ships are 180 feet down at the bottom of Bikini Lagoon, to this day. They were functional at the time, and they were fully loaded with weaponry and fuel. They were unpopulated, although there were farm animals chained to the decks of the ships. So it’s creepy.

Diving there is pretty hairy. It’s way beyond recreational safety diving limits. 180 feet is dark. 180 feet is cold. You take on a tremendous amount of nitrogen down there. It’s pretty technical. You have to do decompression diving, which is inherently dangerous—you have to breathe helium trimix at about thirty feet below the boat for nearly an hour after twenty minutes at depth, hoping that no tiger shark comes along to eat you, as you adjust.

Shark, Bikini Lagoon (2007)

Once you’re down there, you can penetrate the ships, which are dissolving like Alka-Seltzer. It’s very entropic. You’re suffering, at that depth, from nitrogen narcosis. It’s like having three martinis. You’re pretty zonked out.

I went twice: in 2003 and, again, in 2007. During those trips, I made images from the air, on the surface, and underwater. I dove Bikini Lagoon, down to those ships on the bottom, twice.

Diver descending to 180 feet, Bikini Lagoon (2007)

It was one of the most challenging landscapes I have ever worked in, because almost inconceivable violence occurred to these places—both to Bikini Atoll and to Enewetak Atoll. I only physically went to Bikini Atoll, although I did fly over Enewetak. But both atolls were subjected to human gestures that are, as I said, almost inconceivably violent. To try to represent that photographically is very, very difficult.

In fact, the radiological disaster that occurred in 1954 happened simply because the winds changed direction at the wrong time, blowing back over the atoll at Bikini. During the largest nuclear detonation the United States ever did out there, which was 15 megatons, the winds shifted and everything blew back over the islands. It’s the worst radiological disaster in U.S. history.

Manaugh: I don’t want to sound naïve, but is it safe even to be there? Can you walk around and swim in the water and not get radiation poisoning?

Light: Bikini Atoll is still radioactive and still uninhabited to this day, but, yes, you can go there. As long as you don’t drink the water or eat the coconuts—anything that actually comes in contact with the soil, which has a layer of Cesium-137 in it—then you’re fine. The islands have healed. You know, it’s tropical. They’ve healed. There aren’t five-headed crabs walking around. The fish are fine; you can eat the fish. But it’s still pretty radioactive. I’m walking around in a Speedo bathing suit, thinking, “Wow, I’m glad I’m never having kids, ever!” You can’t feel radiation, but it’s there.

So there you are, having a tropical paradise moment, surrounded by tropical paradise visuals, yet you know, in your head, that this is one of the most violent landscapes on earth.

100 SUNS: 086 MOHAWK/360 kilotons/Enewetak Atoll/1956 (2003)

Two commercial aircraft fly the Marshall Islands. There is no access to private aircraft. The distances are too great. Bikini and Enewetak are in the middle of nowhere—that’s why they were used as test sites in the first place. To get aerial access to them was extremely difficult. I had to shoot from those two commercial air shuttles.

Over Enewetak I was able to get some pretty great images of the Mike crater. Mike was the first H-bomb test or, I should say, the first test of a “thermonuclear device.” It was not a bomb.

Mile-Wide, 200’ Deep 1952 MIKE Crater, 10.4 Megatons, Enewetak Atoll (2003)

That was Edward Teller’s baby, and one big-ass crater. That was 10.4 megatons. The scale of that kind of explosion dwarfs all of the ordinance detonated in both world wars combined. Five seconds after that detonation, the fireball alone was five miles wide. These were really, really big explosions. It’s hard to get your head around how big they were.

100 SUNS: 065 MIKE/10.4 megatons/Enewetak Atoll/1952 (2003)

Getting above and working with the Mike crater was terrific. I was able to get above Bikini, but not above the Bravo crater or out to the farthest edge of the atoll. Bravo was the 15-megaton test that left Bikini radioactive.

100 SUNS: 099 BRAVO/15 megatons/Bikini Atoll/1954 (2003)

However, I was able to dive in the Bravo crater while I was there, which was one of the creepiest experiences of my life. It’s still quite radioactive out on the edge of the crater. There’s a bunker right on the edge of Bravo Crater that’s sheared off at the top.

Radioactive Bunker Facing Mile-Wide, 200’ Deep 1954 BRAVO Crater, Bikini Atoll (2003)

Anyway, it’s obviously very deep and very rich territory. It was pretty amazing to be able to make the pilgrimage after having spent so much time with the archival material as I worked on 100 Suns. I have always felt ambivalent about the Bikini work. I’ve never known quite what to do with it. It is hard to work out there. I think that, ultimately, I will do a small book that will move between historical imagery of the ships and of the servicemen. There were 40,000 servicemen stationed there for several years while the Crossroads tests were happening.

I went back in 2007—I think that was right after you and I first talked about this. I got to do some aerial work and some more work on the ground, but, primarily, that trip was about bringing out a digital camera, which I did not have in 2003, and using it underwater. I had a housing and some lights, but I was not very successful in imaging those ships recognizably at those depths. It’s hard.

Ship Sunk by 1946 Crossroads Tests, Bikini Lagoon (2007)

There’s a lot of organic matter in the water. It’s incredibly dark. It’s very difficult to figure out, conceptually, a way to image the country’s first aircraft carrier. For example, I can’t back away from it enough, underwater, to get the whole thing. In theory, one could put together composite images, shot at a fairly close level, and then sort of stitch together what should look like a ship. But it’s a challenge.

Growth on Ship Sunk By 1946 Crossroads Tests, Bikini Lagoon (2007)

For me, throughout the Bikini work, both in 2003 and in 2007, I have taken the approach of reversing the positive as a conceit toward a sense of visually representing radiation and visually suggesting multiple energy sources other than the sun—multiple sources of light. There are also questions about narrative: about entropy, light, Hades, narcosis, dissolution.

You’ve got this kind of X-ray death trip, if you will.

Tower of the IJN Nagato Battleship, Sunk By 1946 Crossroads Tests, Bikini Lagoon (2007)

It’s a very, very strong feeling, diving amongst those ships, and the ghosts of all the people who died on those ships, and knowing what they were used for and how they were sunk. It almost feels like the last gasp of an industrial era that’s now long over and gone. It was really an age of iron. It’s as far from the digital world that we live in now that you can imagine. It’s a dead era, and the work is tough. It’s not warm and fuzzy, or nostalgic. None of that is what Bikini is about. It’s about as dark as you can get.

Along the USS Saratoga, Sunk By 1946 Crossroads Tests, Bikini Lagoon (2007)

Manaugh: In the context of 100 Suns and even hearing you say things like, “as dark as you can get,” it almost seems as though sites like the Mike crater and even these tropical ruins are like spatial byproducts of very large-scale light events. It’s as if the light of a counter-sun—the nuclear explosion—has created its own landscapes of extreme over-exposure and violence. The scenes you’re documenting, in a sense, are byproducts of light.

Light: Yes, some of this is important to me, and I do tend to think oppositionally, in rather binary terms.

Inside Radioactive Photographic Bunker Built In 1956, Aomon Island, Bikini Atoll (2003)

There are so many levels of meaning to the bomb. There are landscape meanings. There are political meanings. There are industrial meanings. There are scientific meanings. To me, as I mentioned, this is a landscape book at bottom.

I personally see the moment that the Mike device detonated in 1952 as the moment when the classical landscape sublime—which, of course, up to that point was the domain of either the divine or of massively powerful natural forces beyond human control—switched. In 1952, the landscape sublime shifted wholly over to humans as the architect.

I was interested in looking closer at that moment when humans became “the divine”—as powerful as, if not more powerful than, the natural forces that they’re subject to on the planet. What was the effect of that—what did that do to landscape representation—when the sublime became an architecture of ourselves?

100 SUNS: 081 TRUCKEE/210 kilotons/Christmas Island/1962 (2003)

With the attainment of a thermonuclear fusion device, humans are igniting their own stars. What does that mean in landscape terms? What does that mean in architectural terms? When you talk about light itself creating a landscape and leaving behind these giant craters, it’s very resonant territory.

Arguably, humans firing up their own stars could be seen as the absolute pinnacle of a tool-bearing civilization—although it’s equally fair to say that it could be seen as humanity’s greatest tragedy, because it came out of a cauldron of violence and was immediately put back into a cauldron of violence.

100 SUNS: 093 BRAVO/15 megatons/Bikini Atoll/1954 (2003)

To bring us back to ground a little bit here, I did 100 Suns, and I did Full Moon, and I continue to do my aerial forays into the American West, because these are things that I want to learn about and try to understand. I just truly didn’t understand fusion and fission; I really didn’t understand space. I think that, while I have a taste—and the human mind has a taste—for scale, there’s only so much scale that we can take. Even then, we need to have it served to us in smaller chunks.

I found that other books and investigations pertaining to outer space were just way too broad and, in the end, didn’t tell me anything. I don’t get much out of the Hubble images, for example. They’re too big. I have no entranceway into those to conceptualize or think about the subject, so I wind up with cotton candy or some nebula image that’s pretty, sure, but I can’t get any substance out of it.

100 Suns never would have happened without having spent five years on the surface of the moon, metaphorically. Studying the nature of light in a vacuum—that was really the primary interest of mine, artistically, in taking on that project.

FULL MOON: Astronaut's Shadow; Photographed by Harrison Schmitt, Apollo 17, 1972 (1999)

How does light work without atmosphere to break it up? It’s sharper than anything our eyes have evolved to see, and it behaves very differently than it does when diffused by an atmosphere. What does that do to the physical act—the actual technology—of photography as it tries to capture that light? What does that light do to a landscape?

What does that landscape do to all the other landscapes we’ve already seen in the history of landscape photography?

FULL MOON: Morning Sun Near Surveyor Crater, With Blue Lens Flare; Photographed by Charles Conrad, Apollo 12, 1969 (1999)

I spent a lot of time looking at the sun’s effects on the surface of the moon, in near-vacuum conditions, and I thought, “Well, what’s the next logical step for this?”

FULL MOON: Solar Wind Collector; Photographed by Alan Bean, Apollo 12, 1969 (1999)

Certainly, it’s not Mars, as so many publishers would suggest. It seemed more logical to go look directly into that sun and, at least in terms of the 20th century, very clear that I should step back just two or three decades, and deal with the bomb. Of course, the Apollo program never would have happened without ICBMs.

On that level, it’s logical—but it also acts as a kind of psychological journey. In 100 Suns, there’s no handholding that occurs for the viewer to guide them between attraction and repulsion. You’re just thrown into it. There’s science afterward; there’s text afterward; there are explanations afterward; there are politics afterward. But that kind of frontal experience was what I wanted you to feel, as a viewer.

It was a very daunting subject. The scale of America, and the scale of its power, offers an infinite mountain of mystery.

Twilley: In terms of both the moon and some of these military ruins, like the Nevada Test Site, physical access for the photographer is all but impossible. Has this made you interested in remote-viewing, remotely controlled cameras, or even drone photography? What might those technologies do, not necessarily to the future of photography, but to the future of the photographer?

Light: Absolutely. I think it’s important to remember that the vast majority of the Apollo photographs were made without anyone looking through a viewfinder.

Those cameras were mounted on the surface of the moon or on the chest area of the spacesuit. With a proper wide-angle lens and an electric advance, the astronauts basically just pointed their bodies in 360-degree circles, at whatever area they were collecting the samples from, and that was the photograph. They were trained very carefully to make sure they could operate the cameras, and there are certainly examples of handheld camera images on the surface of the moon, but a lot of the images were these sort of automatic images you’re talking about—photography without a photographer.

FULL MOON: Alan Bean at Sharp Crater With the Handtool Carrier; Photographed by Charles Conrad, Apollo 12, 1969 (1999)

It’s one of those things that I find interesting about Full Moon, that what we consider to be interesting, photographically, can happen absent of a human set of eyes making the image. Today, as you mention, it’s only getting more extreme.

I should say, at this particular photographic moment, as a photographer myself, I feel overwhelmed. I have not figured out where photography is going. I don’t think anyone has. I certainly know that it’s changing, radically, and sometimes in ways that make me want to run back to the 19th century.

For one thing, everyone’s a photographer now, because everyone has a phone, and those cameras are getting very good. The cameras themselves are doing more and more of the work, as well, work that, traditionally, was the field of the photographer, so the quality of photographs—in the classic sense of things like quality of exposure, density, resolution, contrast, and so forth—is going up and up and up. And, of course, as you well know, there are now systems in place for total and instantaneous publishing of one’s work via the Internet. I think we are entering a world of total documentation.

Obviously, all of this visual information is going to continue to proliferate. I don’t know how to navigate my way through that. I tell myself—because I have my own methods, my own cameras, and my own crazy aerial platform—that my pictures have a view that you are not going to get from a drone.

Personal drones are going to proliferate, and our eyes, soon enough, are going to be able to go anywhere and everywhere without our bodies. Humans have a tremendous interest—they always have had—in extending themselves where they physically cannot go. That’s just picking up more speed now—it’s going faster and faster—and the density of the data is thickening, becoming smog.

I think that photography, or what we currently consider photography, will become more about the concept or the idea driving the picture than the actual picture itself. Maybe that has always been the case. Metaphors are obviously applicable to everything, and you can find them in everything, if you want to. It’s not so much the picture—or, it’s not so much the information in the picture—it’s the spin on it. Information does not equal meaning. Meaning is bigger than information.

I used to fly model aircraft as a kid. It’s a powerful fantasy: mounting a camera on a little electric helicopter and running it around the corner, lifting off over the fence, the hedgerow, the border, and seeing what you can see. I actually do it physically now, in airplanes, and I’m very invested in the physical experience of that. It’s a big part of my aerial work: the politics of transgressing private property in a capitalist society.

I may not be able to get into that gated community on the outskirts of Las Vegas—which is what I’m photographing now, a place called Lake Las Vegas—but, legally, I can get above it and I can make the stories and the images I want to make.

“Monaco” Lake Las Vegas Homes on Gated Grand Corniche Drive, Henderson, NV (2010)

That homeowners’ association, or that world created by developers, wants total control over its narrative, and, in general, they have it. They exclude anyone who wants to tell a different story. So far, with the exception of military air space and occasional prohibited air space around nuclear power plants and that sort of thing, I can still tell my own stories, and I do.

A couple of years ago I went out to Salt Lake City. I sold one of my big handmade books to the art museum there, and I also made an effort to see Kennecott Copper, which is owned by Rio Tinto. I thought they might be interested in buying some of the work—but, as it turned out, they were not at all interested, and, in fact, seemed to wish I didn’t exist.

I met with their PR person—a very nice, chatty PR kind of lady. I showed her this spectacular, 36-inch high and 44-inch wide book of photographs featuring this incredible, almost Wagnerian hole in the ground. And the only thing that she could say, upon seeing the book, was: “How on earth did you get permission?” Not: Wow, these are interesting pictures, or whatever. She instantly zoomed into the question of the legal permission to represent or tell the story of this site. I said: “Well, I didn’t get permission, actually, because I didn’t need permission.” And that was anathema to her; it was anathema to the whole corporate structure that wants to control the story of the Bingham Mine.

Earth’s Largest Excavation, 2.5 Miles Wide and .5 Miles Deep, Bingham Copper Mine, UT (2006)

Anyway, I think it’s through my own selfishness that I would not want to send a drone up to transgress over a site when I could do it, instead. I could just sit at my computer screen and kick back in my chair—but we spend enough time in chairs as it is. It’s more that I am putting my butt on the line; I’m breaking no laws, but there is the experience of physical exploration that I would be denied by using drones. Obviously, in areas where I truly cannot go—like the moon—or where I wouldn’t want to go—like on the edge of one of those nuclear detonations—then I’d be thrilled to have a remote.

Manaugh: You mentioned control over the narrative of the copper mine. It’s as if Kennecott has two-dimensional control over their narrative, through image rights, but they don’t have volumetric, or three-dimensional, control over the narrative, which you can enter into with an airplane and then relate to others in a totally different way.

Light: Of course.

My particular approach, aerially, is very different. The obvious answer is: why not just Google Map it, and zoom in, and then throw a little three-dimensionality on it by moving a little Google Earth lever? But the actual act of going in at the low altitudes that I do lets me make these particular images. I don’t do verticals; I do obliques, because they allow for a relational tableau to happen. To go in low—to make that physical transgression over Bingham or over Lake Las Vegas or over this or that development—is great, and I think it’s a viewpoint that is unique.

Looking East Over Unbuilt “Ascaya” Lots, Black Mountain Beyond, Henderson, NV (2010)

Manaugh: You’ve mentioned Las Vegas, but I’d also like to talk about your Los Angeles work. You basically have two oppositional series—L.A. Day and L.A. Night—which really makes explicit the role light plays in changing how we see a landscape. For instance, in L.A. Night, the city is represented as this William Blake-like microcosm of the universe, with the lights of the houses in the Hollywood hills, and the cars on the freeways, mimicking the stars above them. The city becomes a copy of the sky.

Untitled/Downtown Dusk, Los Angeles (2005)

Then there’s L.A. Day, which confronts the massive Ballardian geometry of the freeways themselves, baking under the sun.

Long Beach Freeway and Atlantic Boulevard Looking Southeast, L.A. River Beyond (2004)

I’m interested in what the city is doing for you in these photographs. Is it a representation of the end of civilization, or is it a strange depiction of new, golden dawn for urban form? What is your attraction to and metaphoric use of the city—of Los Angeles, in particular?

Light: Well, these are very interesting questions. One thing to bear in mind, first of all, is that the day work and the night work is now quite old work to me. The day work was shot in 2004 and the night work was shot in 2005 and it’s just a Los Angeles; it’s not the Los Angeles. It’s very much a particular spot in time that I found myself at that moment. I’ll get into that in a little more detail in a minute.

Back in 1986, when I moved to San Francisco, I wanted to come west for a lot of reasons, one of which was to work for the environment. I had worked for the Sierra Club doing political lobbying with their D.C. office for a couple of years right out of school in the late 1980s. I’ve remained a pretty strong environmentalist, although I try not to make my work tendentious or overtly activist in that sense. I want to be more complicated than that.

Looking Northwest, Somewhere Near Torrance (2004)

Anyway, in San Francisco, the default attitude is to look down your nose at the Southland—like, “Oh, yeah, Los Angeles. It’s everything that’s wrong with America.” The more I’ve lived in California, though, which is 26 years now, the more I have come to realize that this is an extraordinarily common, but very facile, view of Los Angeles. I hope I have grown in the depth of my views about L.A., I’d say, because, if there’s any one thing I’ve learned about photographing Los Angeles—like anywhere else, but particularly L.A.—it’s that, every time you shoot, it’s a different city. L.A. in the spring is one thing. L.A. in the dry summer is another. L.A. day. L.A. night. L.A. color. L.A. black and white. I have been humbled, I think, in a positive way in my views of Los Angeles. Of course, maybe I’ve just gotten more cynical or maybe I’ve gotten a little more complicatedly environmental. But I’m not condemnatory about that city the way I used to be.

L.A. is a massive thing. This is one of the reasons why I was drawn to it in the first place. It’s so big. It’s so complex. Is it apocalyptic? Well, yes; it has a certain apocalyptic quality to it. But, if I’m trying to understand America, or trying to understand the bomb, how could I not try to understand L.A.?

So L.A. Day came directly out of doing 100 Suns. 100 Suns came out in 2003 and I had been spending a tremendous amount of time metaphorically looking at “suns.” Obviously, in L.A. Day, one of the major tropes is that I am shooting directly into the sun, and I’m dealing with air, light, and atmosphere. In that regard, I’m also exploring many of the same things as Full Moon.

I was also just beginning to work with 4x5 negatives, and wanted to go as high-key as possible, to go back into that annihilating desert light. A lot of it was shot either early in the morning or very late in the day, but the whiteness of the light at midday is a very dry, Western, annihilating light that I was also interested in investigating. There’s an image that I’m particularly fond of: it’s downtown L.A. with the river in front, and the city is almost vaporizing. It’s almost just lifting up into the ether. I guess I wasn’t overtly looking for a nuclear moment, something coming so literally from 100 Suns, but, in my mind, that image really—at least, metaphorically—bridges those two projects.

Downtown Los Angeles Looking West, 1st Street Bridge and L.A. River in Foreground (2004)

The night work was kind of a binary reflex. I had been thinking about the old 19th-century blue-sensitive films, where the skies would go pure white, for a while. Full Moon, obviously, is the reversal of that, where the ground—the surface of the moon—is white with undiluted sunlight and the sky is endlessly black.

In the day in L.A. you get the obverse: a terrestrial sky, if you will. L.A. Night is another reversal and a kind of the binary analogue to the moon and its vacuum sky.

Untitled/River Stars, Los Angeles (2005)

Those things were operating in my mind, although the night work also came out of a technical challenge I wanted to face. I wanted to get this 4x5 camera to work from a helicopter. I can only go one-sixtieth of a second. Slower than that and I get a blur. The challenge was: can I actually get enough light on the film at one-sixtieth of a second, either at dusk or in pure dark? Can I even make this work?

I discovered very cheap—relatively speaking—Robinson R22 helicopters, operating out of Van Nuys, that I could get for something like $230 an hour with a pilot. The physical thrill of having your own private dragonfly, really, which is what these helicopters are, also drove my interest. I was doing all this day work and I thought, well: let’s try a night flight. Let’s actually drift over the vastness and the endlessness of the city, and all the light washing around in that basin. It is exquisitely sparkly. It’s delightful. It has some enchantment in a way that Los Angeles, in daylight, does not. It’s rife with metaphor with all the little lights standing in for all the little people.

Untitled/Hollywood, Los Angeles (2005)

I think that, in all of my work since the late 1980s, there has been a transposition between up and down, or a loss of gravitational pull, and that’s very important to me.

FULL MOON: Edward White at 17,500 mph Over the Gulf of Mexico; Photographed by James McDivitt, Gemini 4, 1965 (1999)

A sense of vertigo or spinning in space, the full 3-dimensionality of space—the spatial delirium we were talking about earlier. I’ve always been interested in imagery that gives me a sense of looking up when I am actually looking down. That reversal is something I try to look for.

Sawtooth Mountains Diptych, ID (2012)

But that night work was very much of a moment in time in my own production—meaning that I would not go back to L.A. and make pictures like that again.

The work I’m doing over Vegas couldn’t be more different. It’s color. It’s very much lower to the ground. It’s much more specific to its content. In aerial work for me, not only is there tremendous pleasure in moving through space, 3-dimensionally, there is also tremendous pleasure in moving over and around and amongst geology and amongst actual formations of the land. Much of the content of the western work is about that dialogue between geology and the built world.

Empty Lots in the “Marseilles” Lake Las Vegas Community, Henderson, NV (2011)

The subtitle of my larger project, Some Dry Space, is An Inhabited West. My point is that there is no place that’s untouched anymore. The west is a giant human park.

But, that said, there is still lot of space left and it’s really fun to move through that space. It’s fun to say, well, okay, here’s Phoenix or here’s Los Angeles, but how can I make images that actually show the power of the geology of a place? How do I represent two different time scales? How do I photograph the human one and the tectonic one? I find that dialogue, between a human time frame and the time frame of the land, to be an interesting one. I try to capture both when I can, preferably adjacent to each other in the same picture.

New Construction On East Porter Drive, Camelback Mountain Beyond, Scottsdale, AZ (2007)

Twilley: What have you been trying to capture or represent in your most recent trips out there?

Light: Every flight is different. Every mindset is different. I find that I take radically different pictures each time I go up. It’s an interesting thing. I’ve contained myself to two areas—Lake Las Vegas and the MacDonald Ranch, which is this whole side of a mountain that’s been completely sculpted into house pads. It is the most spectacular, simple engineering project I think I’ve ever seen. It’s very dramatic. Parts of it are built out; parts of it aren’t. I don’t know what the final awful sales name of the development will be, but these will be very high-end homes.

I’ve really taken on the domestic side of Las Vegas, where “California dreams” are to be had on the cheap—and then on the extraordinarily inflated side of things, the delusional, opulent side of things.

Vegas is a very easy target for the sophisticated East Coast cultural critic to come out and judge. But that line of critique is a dead end. It’s not new territory, and it also dismisses the people—the end-users—without asking any questions about how they got there. I’ll nail the developers any day of the week: this is a calculated, rationalized capitalist agenda for them. But the people at the end, on the receiving side of it, the people who are trying to build their lives and their dreams, on whatever unstable sands that they can or can’t afford out there—I would like to present them critically but without condemnation.

Halted “Bella Fiore” Houses and Bankrupt “Falls” Golf Course, Lake Las Vegas, Henderson, NV (2011)

The L.A. work was too high and atmospheric to get political. Now that I’m down, flying much lower and getting closer and closer to the material, I think the work can carry more of an agenda. It is a presentation with sophisticated layering, I hope, rather than a blanket condemnation. Otherwise, I’m looking down my nose, saying, “Oh, look at these poor fools living in Las Vegas, while I’m up in San Francisco living the way people should live.”

The more work I do in Las Vegas, the more I see parallels between the mining industry—and the extraction history of the west—and the inhabitation industry. They do the same sort of things to the land; they grade, flatten, and format the land in similar ways. It can be hard to tell the difference sometimes between a large-scale housing development being prepped for construction and a new strip mine where some multinational firm is prospecting for metals.

Unbuilt “Ascaya” Lots and Cul De Sac Looking West, Henderson, NV (2011)

In other words, the extraction industry and the inhabitation industry are two sides of the same coin. The terraforming that takes place to make a massive development on the outskirts of a city has the same order, and follows the same structure, as much of the terraforming done in the process of mining.

That was a revelation for me. The mine is a city reversed. It is its own architecture.

Hiking Trail and Unbuilt “Ascaya” Lots, Black Mountain Beyond, Henderson, NV (2010)

This latest shoot also resulted in some structural advances in the photographs, in the way that they are composed and the way that they are offset and fragmenting. I was pleased with it. I was also testing out a new camera I had rented.

Twilley: Are you shooting digital?

Light: I am beginning to. I’m trying. I’m renting all the Hasselblads—60 megapixels—that I can get my hands on.

Two years ago now, when I had already been doing the Vegas work for a while, I wanted to get away from the very, very new. I wanted to get away from what was, before the crash, the fastest-growing city in America, and go out to find the very, very old. I flew out to the Acoma Pueblos and the Hopi Mesas, which are the oldest, continuously inhabited settlements on the North American continent.

I worked out there twice, on two separate trips, that summer of 2011. It was amazing: the super-old against the super-new. Obviously, the Vegas work is by helicopter, whereas I’m in my small aircraft over Acoma and Hopi land.

The Hopi outlawed photography, recording, and anthropological visits and sketching back in 1913. You do not roll up onto Hopi land and take pictures or make recordings without their specific permission. Likewise with Acoma: you ask permission. This is sacred territory.

Now, I’m in the air. I don’t have any problem transgressing over corporate property—private property—when I’m in America: it’s my country and I’m an American. I’m an arrogant motherfucker. If I want to make a picture, I’m going to make a picture. I don’t care who you are; I’m going to do it, if I can legally get away with it, and, in the air, I can legally get away with it.

However, I do not have that right over Hopi land and Acoma. I don’t have that right over Native American territory. It is not my country; it’s their country. It’s not my nation. It’s not my inheritance. It’s not my heritage. It’s not my politics. It’s their sovereignty. I truly do not have a right, morally, as far as I am concerned, to transgress those boundaries. I respect them.

On the other hand, I am a photographer—an aerial photographer—and I’m looking for images. I did a lot of legwork. I spoke to photographers who work aerially, and who have worked aerially for decades, in Navajo land and Hopi land. Morally—and, again, this is my compass, not necessarily your compass—my feeling is that if I’m there, in the air, and I’m able to make the image, I’ll make the image. Of course, whether I can use that image after the fact remains to be seen, and that will only be determined after open discussions with various tribal entities.

So, basically, I made images that I may never be able to publish. I made them because I wanted to make them. I made them for myself. I made them as unobtrusively as I possibly could. Mine is a small aircraft. It makes absolutely no sound if I cut the power and I descend. Then, eventually, I have to add power and climb up and out, but it’s a pretty quiet little number. And I would never photograph religious ceremonies.

But if I were ever to publish any of that work, I would show them all the images first; I would give them a copy of all the images; and I would probably offer any revenues from those images to the tribe. But there is a difference between acquiring images and presenting images to the world. It is interesting, these politics.

U.S. Magnesium plant, Great Salt Lake, UT (Google Maps, 2013)

Take the chlorine magnesium plant outside of Salt Lake. This is a plant that’s owned by—I’m blanking on his name. That plant outside Salt Lake is the worst polluter in America.

Manaugh: You mean the Hummer guy? Ira Rennert?

Light: That is exactly right. Ira Rennert. He owns the largest private residence in America. It’s in Sagaponack, New York. I grew up 12 miles from Sagaponack. I know that area very well.

Ira Rennert residence “Fair Field,” Sagaponack, New York: 29 bedrooms, 39 bathrooms, 110,000 sq feet built structures (Google Maps, 2013)

I have a mind—and I have had a mind, for a while—to transgressively photograph his insane, absurd residence at the end of Long Island. I would do a bifurcated book, featuring images of his house and images of the chlorine magnesium plant outside Salt Lake, and let him sue me. Bring it on. But, oh boy, would I have to talk to the lawyers beforehand. You have to plan for lawsuit attack.

Here’s an interesting story: There was a couple—a man and a woman—who made a bunch of money on the Internet, cashed out, and bought a Robinson R44 four-seater helicopter. They did this thing called the California Coastal Records Project, where they systematically documented every single piece of the California coast and put it online. I think you can even zoom in—the images are pretty high-res. I’m not sure if they identified everything on the coast, but there was probably some identification going on. This is the land of Google, right?

But, when they were flying past Malibu—which is just one part of the California coast—they happened to photograph Barbra Streisand’s house. She sued them for $50 million. She claimed invasion of privacy. Happily, the judge threw it out and said, “Grow up, Barbra. This is not about you.” And that is true: they weren’t singling out Barbra Streisand.

Now, if I tackle Mr. Rennert, then that is singling him out.

Anyway, the more I photograph, the more I have become attracted to architecture and the meanings of architecture. As it appears here and there out west in the landscape, architecture stands out so much. It’s just plunked down, naked and exposed. Whatever intentions it has, if there are any, are so apparent.

Houses on the Edge of the Snake River Lava Plain, Jerome, ID (2009)

As I have come to photograph these inhabited landmarks, it’s more and more obvious how the affluent choose to manifest their affluence through architecture. They manifest it by getting or obtaining a certain piece of land—a spectacular piece of land in the spectacular west—and then by building some sort of structure there. They want to insert themselves into the most sublime location possible.

They take in the sublime, as we all would, and as I do, but then they try to project it back out again through a generally dirty and dark architectural mirror. You see it on the Snake River, with the potato barons. You see it in Colorado. You see it in ski towns. In my view, it’s just a re-projection of the American business ego—let’s just call it the American ego—back out into the landscape, via this or that villa. It’s an architectural version of wanting now to be the true authors of the landscape sublime, and part of this abrupt shift from classical, uninhabited landscapes to built landscapes of our own monumental and violent design. That’s all part of what I mean by “the inhabited west."

Kazakhstan Elite, Jessica Rath, high-­fire glazed porcelain, 2012; photograph courtesy Jessica Rath.

Every apple for sale at your local supermarket is a clone. Every single Golden Delicious, for example, contains the exact same genetic material; though the original Golden Delicious tree (discovered in 1905, on a hillside in Clay County, West Virginia) is now gone, its DNA has become all but immortal, grafted onto an orchard of clones growing on five continents and producing more than two hundred billion pounds of fruit each year in the United States alone.

Embedded within this army of clones, however, is the potential for endless apple diversity. Each seed in an apple is genetically unique: like human siblings, seed sisters from the same fruit remix their source DNA into something that has never been seen before—and is likely, at least in the case of the apple, to be bitter, tough, and altogether unpalatable. The sheer variety of wild apples is astonishing: in its original home, near Almaty in Kazakhstan, the apple can be the size of a cherry or a grapefruit; it can be mushy or so hard it will chip teeth; it can be purple- or pink-fleshed with green, orange, or white skin; and it can be sickly sweet, battery-acid sour, or taste like a banana.


Tasting apples at the Plant Genetic Resources Unit; photograph by Jessica Rath from her 2009 visit.

In Geneva, New York, these two extremes—the domesticated apple's endless monoculture and its wild diversity—can be found side-by-side. As part of the national germplasm system, America's apple archivist, Philip Forsline, has assembled and tended a vast Noah's Ark of more than 2,500 apple varieties: two clones of each, in order to preserve the fruit's genetic biodiversity. Meanwhile, on the same Cornell/USDA Agricultural Experiment Station, Susan Brown, one of the country's three commercial apple breeders, develops new clones by cultivating wildly different seed sisters.

In 2009 and 2011, artist Jessica Rath visited both the Apple Collection at the USDA’s Plant Genetic Resources Unit and the Cornell apple-breeding program, creating a body of new work, currently on display at the Pasadena Museum of California Art under the title take me to the apple breeder.

Rath's original goal was to create slip cast porcelain sculptures that embodied the incredible—and now endangered—range of the apple's aesthetic potential; revealing the charms and qualities it has developed through co-evolution with humans as a reflection of our own desires and will. During her visit, however, Rath also became fascinated by the conjoined twin of Forsline's apple archive: Brown's speculative sisters and successful, selected clones, which she photographed as bare-branched trees against a white backdrop.

Intrigued by the idea of artwork that reflects on the complicated threads of selection and preservation that bind humans and apples together, Venue toured the exhibition with Rath. The edited transcript of our conversation, which ranges from the trickiness of Vegas Red glaze to the future of apple breeding, appears below.

• • •


PI 588933.12 (unnamed cluster); photographed on the tree by Jessica Rath during her 2009 visit.

Nicola Twilley: How did you come to visit the Apple Collection at the USDA’s Plant Genetic Resources Unit in upstate New York?

Jessica Rath: I read about it in Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire. The first chapter is about apples, and he visits the orchard in Geneva. I read that section and I knew I needed to make work about it. I don’t do that very often but that passage, where he writes about the variety of the apples and the way they look and taste… I wanted to make something as intriguing as that—I wanted to get you to feel that crazy diversity. I sat on that for years. I wanted to go there, but I had no idea how I was going to make work about it.


Sunset cluster, Jessica Rath, high-­fire glazed porcelain and bronze, 2012; photograph courtesy Jessica Rath.

I just bookmarked it, and then my apricot tree died. I made a peel—an inverted mold, I guess—of this dying tree, and I made a slip cast of its one, last fruit. I’ve changed mediums constantly in my practice—I usually do site-specific installations or I do performance work—but I talked to some sculptor friends to find out how to create a sort of glowing, golden aura for this last apricot, and they all said slip cast porcelain. So I made it, and I looked at it and, and I thought, that’s not it. That’s not good enough. But it did glow. And that’s what made me think I was ready to do something with the apples. I thought, if I can make them glow, then I can make this work. So that’s when I raised some money on Kickstarter to be able to get there.

That was the other piece of the puzzle that fell into place. My daughter was a baby and I hadn’t read anything in months, but I was on a flight and I picked up The New York Times, and there was an article about Kickstarter. I went home, I raised money on Kickstarter, and I got it about a month before the end of apple season; so I raced over to the Plant Genetic Resources Unit for a forty-eight hour visit.


Scouting for apples at the Plant Genetic Resources Unit; photograph by Jessica Rath from her 2009 visit.

I learned a lot while just scouting on the first day, from a man named William Srmack who manages the orchards and works directly with Philip Forsline, who’s the curator of the collection. On the second day, I just collected apples. I brought home several hundred apples. Part of the Kickstarter money bought an extra refrigerator for the studio and I loaded it and kept it pretty cold. I took a lot of photos of the fruit on the tree, and in a light box, too.


PI 483254.22 (unnamed—sunset cluster); photographed on the tree by Jessica Rath during her 2009 visit.

Twilley: Let’s look at the sculptures. If I understand correctly, although each pair or cluster represents a different breed, they’re not casts of specific, particular apples, but rather abstracted, ideal forms—or ur-apples—that embody the breed’s characteristic shape and color.

Rath: Exactly. With slip cast porcelain, you lose thirty percent of the volume when you fire. So, even if you wanted to do a cast of the original apple, you couldn’t get the same scale because it would be shrunk by thirty percent, which not only makes it too small, it also miniaturizes the features. It makes it kind of a caricature. It isn’t just small, it’s cartoonish. So it doesn’t work.

I already knew I had to make an object thirty percent larger in order to get the scale right. But the other thing is that I didn’t want to make something descriptive. I wanted to make something that communicated something about the wild diversity of these apples and the ways that they embody different facets of our desires through the science fiction of breeding—the thing Michael Pollan is writing about.

When you describe things accurately in a botanical drawing sort of way, it dies. When artwork is too illustrative, it can only describe and it can’t go any further than that. You recognize it and then you stop being interested. You’re amazed at the replication, you’re amazed at the representation, but then you actually can’t think about it as anything other than its finite definition.


A Yellow Bellflower photographed on the tree by Jessica Rath during her 2009 visit. The Yellow Bellflower is thought to have originated in Burlington, New Jersey, and is still grown as an heirloom variety today. It is described as a "large, handsome, winter apple" that is equally delicious when used for cidering, baking, or eating out of hand.

For my sculptures, the shapes are very similar to the original. They’re just pushed a little, so that the things about them—the sculptural elements about them, their particular volume or tilt, or how fat and breast-like they are—are composed three-dimensionally in such a way that you notice them a bit more, and they pop a little. They’re not on a tree. They’re not something that’s dangling that you want to pick because you want to eat it; so, instead, I have to make them attractive through a very different model—an art historical model. I’ve got to present them like they’re a still-life, and compose them in that framework, so that you can be intrigued by them again the way you would be if you saw them as a fruit on a tree.


Yellow Bellflower, Jessica Rath, high-fire glazed porcelain, 2012. Rath explained that she focused on the Bellflower's "fantastic curves and lilts. It was very muscular—even beefy—to the point where it felt almost as though it shouldn't be called an apple, but rather some other fruit instead."

Geoff Manaugh: In the exhibition brochure, it says it took two years of experimentation to arrive at these glazes. Can you talk a bit more about that chemical process?

Rath: In ceramics, there are low-fire glazes, which are very descriptive. They stay the same color. Then the high-fire glazes have more of a glow to them. They also just have a lot of materials in them, and are a lot more unpredictable. You’ve probably seen it at pottery stalls at the fair: when you look at all the mugs or plates or whatever that have all been dunked in one kind of cerulean blue, they will all have turned out slightly different. Some of them will be light blue or whiter or purplish, depending on where they were in the kiln and how thick the glaze was on it and how it dripped.

I originally did that apricot, that last fruit, in a low-fire glaze. But for the apples, I steered away from being that descriptive with the glazes because they died for me, except for ones in which I would layer quite a few low-fire glazes. There’s this fuzzy speckling you can get in low-fire, which I wanted.

Normally, you would make little rectangular tiles of clay and you’d fire it and you’d have fifty little things to test the glaze on, till you got roughly what you want. But these apples are round and irregular rather than flat, and the glaze moves on them in very particular ways depending on the size and the angles of their curves, so I couldn’t test on strips. I had to test on the object.


Deacon Jones, Jessica Rath, high-fire glazed porcelain, 2012. The Deacon Jones is the largest apple in Rath's inventory, at a magnificent and somewhat incredible seven inches tall

This one [shown above], the Deacon Jones, probably took one hundred tests. This was the hardest one, even though it’s the straightest glaze. All of the others are tweaked a little, but the glaze on this is pretty straight. It’s called Vegas Red and it does get this red but usually only in parts or pieces, say, at the bottom of the bowl. It doesn’t stay a solid red. And it also drips. So to get it to actually sit there and get this red all over is one out of one hundred, if you’re lucky.

It’s also down to a very, very close relationship with the ceramic technician that took about two years to build, so that after two years of watching me fail over and over again, he put it in a sweet spot in the kiln. He’s Japanese, and he’s pretty old-school, and I think he thought I had finally worked hard enough that I deserved a sweet spot. There’s only one or two of them in the kiln. All of a sudden I got three perfectly red apples in a month. I knew I was improving over time, but it was that relationship, too.


PI 588933.12 (Unnamed cluster), Jessica Rath, high-fire glazed porcelain and bronze, 2012.

This is an unnamed apple [shown above], which is based on trees in the orchard that were grafted from wild apples in Kazakhstan, from the original home of the apple. It’s low-fire over high-fire. I was interested in this sort of speckling blush that they had, but then the blush took over. My approach was to get to a point with the experimentation where I found something that grabbed me and then let it go with that and work with that.

Twilley: That sounds a little like the apple breeding process.

Rath: Yes—I found a quality I liked and then I bred and bred to refine it, essentially. This is a Dulcina, which is another one with a blush that I arrived at while I was trying to get the rest of it into a more green or yellowish stage. I loved the metaphor of the night sky that’s held in it, so I just went for that.


Dulcina, Jessica Rath, high-fire glazed porcelain, 2012.

There’s supposed to be an edition of two of each of these apples, and I’m unable to replicate this one. It’s the last one. I’m still working on it. After you leave, I’ll go up to the kiln again. The idea of producing an edition of two is an odd one in sculpture, but it made sense for the apples: they’re always planted in pairs in the orchard, as a Noah’s Ark idea—in case something happens to one.


Whiteness, Jessica Rath, high-fire glazed porcelain, 2012.

These final ones [shown above] are very, very pale yellow on the tree and when the sun hits them they turn white. You know that they’re yellow, but when you’re in this orchard, things look different. I’ve described it to people as being like when you go fishing, and when you catch a fish, it has a certain glimmer to the skin while it’s alive. As soon as you kill it, as soon as it’s dead, the whole sheen shifts into a kind of grey. The depth of the color is not the same. It’s immediate.


PI 594107.j5 (unnnamed—whiteness), photographed on the tree by Jessica Rath during her 2009 visit.

I swear that these apples have the same thing. There’s something about them when they’re on the tree—they have this luminosity. As soon as you pick them, the depth of the color isn’t there, and the whiteness is just a pale yellow. You can’t capture it in a photograph, either. That’s why I chose ceramics. I’ve no business doing any ceramics. I’ve never done it before. I’m a sculptor, but sculptors and ceramicists are usually in separate departments. But when I saw what the glazes could do, I thought that I could catch that life again.

Porcelain vitrifies—it turns to glass with the glaze—which means that the body of the sculpture and the color that’s applied, this glaze, become one body. That’s a technical thing, but it’s also real and aesthetic. In sculpture, that doesn’t happen. You can use car body paint to make something glow and shift in the light, but it’s always applied, and in ceramics the color and the body become one. I had a whole series of fifteen years of work where I never used color because I always thought, what’s the point? It’s not part of the body of the work; it’s just applied.

Twilley: Did you take the tree photographs in the show at the same time, or is that a separate project?

Rath: While I was at the Plant Genetics Resource Unit, I got a call from this woman, Susan Brown. I don’t even know how she got hold of me, but thank god she did. She said, “You need to come over here, because I’ve got these trees and you need to see them.” It turns out she’s one of only three commercial apple breeders in the United States, and her job is to cross apple varieties to improve them and create the next Jonagold.


Dr. Susan K. Brown and Jessica Rath during the tree photo shoot, March 2011; photography courtesy Jessica Rath.

And I said, “I’m really busy. I’ve got 48 hours. I’m really into these apples.” And she just said, “Get the rest of your apples and come over here. We’ve got three hours before the sun sets.”

I don’t know why I said yes. I was just very lucky. She picked me up in her truck and she showed me a row of cloned trees. It was October, so all of the leaves were still on the trees, and she hadn’t pruned them, because she wants to see what the architecture will do if it’s not touched. It was just this big row of green, and I couldn’t really see anything.


Sisters small and different, Jessica Rath, archival pigment print on exhibition fiber, 2012.

So then she took me to another row of trees that were just saplings. They had some leaves, but not many, because they were so young. Every single one of them had a different architecture—some of them were weeping, some were standing upright, some of them had branches like corkscrew or at perfect right angles. It was like a carnival. They were just different bodies, different leaves, and different sheens to the leaf. She said, “This is what happens when you cross.” Then I got it.

She took me back to her office and showed me a big binder—she had been photographing her trees for years. She understood her trees as artwork, and she wanted somebody else to have a conversation with about that.


Sisters normal, Jessica Rath, archival pigment print on exhibition fiber, 2012.


Sisters weeping, Jessica Rath, archival pigment print on exhibition fiber, 2012.

She had tried to stretch these sheets behind trees in the winter, and I thought—that’s it! I need to do that, but I need to do it really, really well. So I applied for a grant to go back and photograph Susan’s trees in winter.

I came back about a year and a half later. Susan and I spent a day scouting, then we shot for three days. I was trying to not only show the architecture and the diversity, but also what I wanted in terms of understanding her work, and the difference between the sisters and the clones. The sisters had this extreme variety, but when I went back, I fell in love with the clones. They were all covered in leaves before; I couldn’t really see them. But when I went back in winter, they seemed to not embody the diversity but rather, instead, embody this kind of limiting figure, this figure that had been worked on, that had been “improved” by humans, and that was beautiful but also really haunting.


Clone with central leader, Jessica Rath, archival pigment print on exhibition fiber, 2012.

Some of them are bred for their architecture, but lots of them are bred for other qualities—resistance to browning or disease, high yield, or taste—and are kept alive despite their architecture. Susan told me that they’re on the cusp of moving to quite a different way of breeding, using genetic markers, so, in the future, she probably won’t have rows and rows of such extreme variety. She’ll have more control.


Clone spreading with scab resistance, Jessica Rath, archival pigment print on exhibition fiber, 2012.

That idea of artificial selection versus natural selection, and the way that certain varieties become weaker, but yet more common, because they’ve entangled humans into maintaining them—that was something I was thinking about before I went to graduate school. I was working with flora in general, but I couldn’t figure out a way to get plants to talk, and so I gave up and moved on. Then, when I read The Botany of Desire, after fifteen years of staying away from the topic, it was as if Pollan had given me a voice for them—an imaginary voice in which they’re drawing us in through aesthetics and through taste in order to get us to reproduce them. Finally, I felt as though I could have a discussion with plants—that they had agency.


Sisters smiling, Jessica Rath, archival pigment print on exhibition fiber, 2012.


Clone with perseverance, Jessica Rath, archival pigment print on exhibition fiber, 2012.

Manaugh: It’s interesting that the sisters are all shown in group portraits, whereas the clones are shot on their own, as individuals. Was that a conscious decision, and, if so, what was the intention behind it?

Rath: It was interesting—I tried to shoot the clones as a group, but they just became a landscape. It just seemed that the way to show the clones was as an adult, as something that you would pull material from that had lived a life already, that was full of its own, carefully constructed shape already, and that had certain defined characteristics. I wanted it to capture the potential of using it for these breeding experiments. Meanwhile, the sisters are all about the variety.


From left to right, Cole Slutsky, Mary Wingfield, Timothy Zwicky, and Dustin McKibben set up the 20 x 30 ft backdrop for the photograph Water Sprout; photograph courtesy Jessica Rath.


Backdrop set up for Clone with central leader; photograph courtesy Jessica Rath.

The set up was tortuous. I was using a twenty-by-thirty-foot muslin backdrop. There were five people holding it down, the wind was gusting—it could have killed all of us. There was a photographer, the photographer’s assistant, and me all shooting. We had computer equipment tethered to everything and the rows of trees are not very far apart, so we were really squeezed in to get enough distance. And it was early March, so it was unbelievably cold.


Clone water sprout, Jessica Rath, archival pigment print on exhibition fiber, 2012.

I love this one [shown above], particularly because the horizon almost appears like it is an actual horizon, not just one created by the backdrop. For a second, you could think is there a cliff on the other side of the tree. And yet, behind the backdrop, the landscape is present in a sort of ghostlike way. For me, that’s part of the idea—that the landscape is constructed only as much as you need it to be in order to make the thing live.


Clone weeping with resistance, Jessica Rath, archival pigment print on exhibition fiber, 2012.

I also love the fact that there are allusions to the wind that’s there through the folds and ripples. I spent a lot of time working on these images in Photoshop, after the fact, cropping out and removing things—stray branches from other trees, and so on—that distracted from the composition. But I deliberately kept some of the ripples, because I liked the evidence of the physical tension in the landscape. It’s also part of pointing to the artifice. The backdrop doesn’t disappear, and so you remain aware that the whole thing is a construction.


Clone with early pubescence, Jessica Rath, archival pigment print on exhibition fiber, 2012.

The title of this one, Clone with early pubescence, [shown above] alludes to the fact that it’s budding too early, so it’s about to get cut down. It’s already dead to Susan, because it has no use. As we walked around, she was telling me about each of the trees—what will happen to them, or what is promising about them, or what she has used them for—and those stories definitely crept into the way I chose to frame and title the shots.

Twilley: Finally, I’m curious about your next project. I’ve heard a rumor that you’re working on something to do with bees—is that true?

Rath: Yes—well, tomatoes or bees. I loved Barry Estabrook’s Tomatoland. The idea of shipping tomatoes from Florida to New York in 1880, in a wagon? It’s crazy! [laughs] I’m doing a series of watercolors of tomatoes right now, which are very different than this. They combine scientific text with quotes from literature about redness, and blushes, and scarlet letters—all about how colors have been used to place judgment on things, and the gendered language that goes with that. There are a lot of “wenches” and “whores” in that series as well. Tasteless whores, too, because some of them are grocery-bought tomatoes. I’m playing with language like that with this series, which is a very different kind of playing than in this apple project—much less subtle.

The bee idea involves visiting Dr. Nieh’s laboratory in San Diego. He’s a bee expert and he has figured out all these incredible ways that bees are communicating, to which he’s given wonderful names like superorganism inhibitory signaling and olfactory eavesdropping.

I’m interested in doing an installation of a hive. It would be to human scale, and it would play with the biofeedback of the people in the hive, and how they interact, as well as the atmospheric conditions. The idea is to create a composition based on all those inputs that shifts in real-time, all based on the scientific research of Dr. Nieh into how bees communicate. I’m looking for a composer to work with on that right now.


Drap d'or gueneme, Jessica Rath, high-fire glazed porcelain, 2012.

Jessica Rath's apple sculptures and photographs are on display at the Pasadena Museum of California Art through February 24, 2013. Many thanks to Willy Blackmore for the suggestion!
Some of the most fascinating, unsettling examples of landscape painting in the contemporary United States are to be found in its prison visiting rooms, where they function as painted backdrops for family photographs.


James Bowlin, United States Penitentiary, Marion, Illinois; photograph courtesy Alyse Emdur. Note the fake trout.

Ranging in subject matter from picturesque waterfalls to urban streetscapes, and from ski resorts to medieval castles, these large-format paintings serve a dual purpose: for the authorities, they help to restrict photography of sensitive prison facilities; for the prisoners and their families, they are an escapist fiction, constructing an alternate reality for display on fridge doors and mantlepieces.


Prison Visiting Room Backdrop, Woodbourne Correctional Facility, New York; photograph by Alyse Emdur.

With nearly 2.3 million Americans in prison today—an astonishing one out of every hundred adults in the United States, according to a 2008 Pew study—this school of landscape art is critically overlooked but has a mass-market penetration comparable to the work of Thomas Kinkade. And, like Kinkade’s work, these backdrops, which are usually painted by talented, self-taught inmates, are simultaneously photo-realistic and highly idealized. Cumulatively, they represent a catalog of imagined utopias—scenes from an abstracted, perfected elsewhere, painted from behind bars.

A few years ago, artist Alyse Emdur was looking through a family album when she came across a photo of herself as a little girl, posed in front of a tropical beach scene while visiting her elder brother in prison. She spent the next few years exploring this overlooked school of landscape art, tracking down examples across the United States.


Emdur family photo in front of prison visiting room backdrop; photograph courtesy Alyse Emdur.

At first, she wrote to prison administrators to ask permission to photograph the backdrops herself—a request that was inevitably firmly denied. Instead, she joined prisoner pen-pal sites, and asked inmates to send her pictures of themselves posed in front of their prison’s backdrops, eventually assembling several hundred photos and more than sixteen binders full of correspondence. Finally, in summer 2011, she gained permission to visit and photograph several prison visiting room backdrops herself.


Prison Landscapes; Published January 2013 by Four Corners Books.


Michael Parker and Geoff Manaugh looking at Alyse Emdur's correspondence and work in their shared studio space; photograph by Venue.

Venue visited Emdur’s studio in downtown Los Angeles in June 2012, as she was collecting all this material for a book, Prison Landscapes, published this month by Four Corners Books. After a studio tour conducted by her partner, artist Michael Parker, we followed up with Emdur by phone: the edited transcript of our conversation appears below.

• • •


Alyse Emdur's large-format photographs of prison visiting room backdrops on her studio walls; photograph by Venue.

Nicola Twilley: From the hundreds of photographs that prisoners sent you, as well as the ten or so backdrops that you were able to photograph yourself, it seems as though there is almost a set list of subject matter: glittering cityscapes, scenes of natural landscapes, like beaches and sunsets, and then historical or fantasy architecture, such as medieval castles. Did you notice any patterns or geographic specificity to these variations in subject matter?

Alyse Emdur: You do see some regional realism—so, prisons in Washington State will have evergreen trees in their backdrops, prisons in Florida will have white sand beaches, and prisons in Louisiana will have New Orleans French Quarter-style features. There’s also the question of where the prisoners are from: one thing that I’ve observed is that in upstate New York, for example, many of the prisoners are actually from New York City, so many of the backdrops in upstate New York prisons show New York City skylines.

Fantastical scenes are actually much less common—from what I gather from my correspondence, realism is like gold in prison. That’s the form of artistic expression that’s most appreciated and most respected, so that’s often the goal for the backdrop painter.

Twilley: Do you have a sense of how you get to be a backdrop painter—do inmates chose amongst themselves or do the prison authorities just make a selection? And, on a similar note, how much artistic freedom does the backdrop painter actually have, in terms of needing approval of his or her subject matter from fellow inmates or the authorities?

Emdur: That’s one of the questions that I’ve asked of all the backdrop painters who I’ve been in touch with over the years. The answer is always that if you are a “good artist” in prison, then you’re very well-respected within the prison—people in the prison all know you. You’ll be making greeting cards for people or you’ll be doing hand calligraphy for love letters for friends in prison—you’ll be known for your skills. The prison administration is already aware of the respected artists, because they shine within the culture, and so they are usually the ones that are chosen. And when you’re chosen, it’s a huge honor.


Genesis Asiatic, Powhatan Correctional Center, Statefarm, Virginia; photograph courtesy Alyse Emdur.

Something to keep in mind, though, is that backdrops do get painted over. In some prisons, the backdrop can change a few times a year.

One of the artists I’ve kept in touch with is Darrell Van Mastrigt—I interviewed him for the book, and he painted a backdrop for me that was in my thesis show. In the prison that he’s in, the portrait studios are organized by the NAACP. He said that the NAACP had seen his paintings in the past, and when they selected him, they gave him creative control over what sort of landscape he chose to paint.

Obviously, there are some rules. The main restriction is that you can’t use certain colors that are affiliated with gangs. So, for instance, Darrell painted a mural with two cars and they had to be green and purple—they couldn’t be red or blue. But, from what Darrell has told me and from what I understand from other painters, they don’t get much input from other prisoners. At the same time, they’re very conscious of wanting to please people and maintain their status within the prison, of course, and they get a lot of pleasure out of doing something positive for families in the visiting room.


One of sixteen binders full of letters and prisoner portraits mailed to Emdur; photograph by Venue.

Another interesting thing a painter told me was that she was very conscious of not wanting to do a specific, recognizable cityscape, because she knew that not everyone in the prison was from the city. So she deliberately tried to paint a more abstract landscape that she thought anyone could relate to.
And a lot of imagery they work from is from books in the prison library, rather than just their memories.


Brandon Jones, United States Penitentiary, Marion, Illinois; photograph courtesy Alyse Emdur.

Twilley: In some of the photographs you were sent, the prisoners are in front of off-the-shelf printed backdrops—some offering multiple pull-down choices—rather than hand-painted ones. Are these standardized commercial backdrops gradually replacing the inmate-produced landscapes?

Emdur: The backdrop-painting tradition is definitely still vibrant and strong, but my sense is that these store-bought backdrops are becoming more and more common.

For one thing, the hand-painted backdrops are not always as realistic as a photograph, and, often, the prisoners and their families are looking to create the illusion that they really are somewhere else. So, the more realistic, the better. When I went to photograph a backdrop in one New York State prison, I found an amazing hand-painted mural of a New York City skyscraper with a cartoon-like Statue of Liberty in front—she almost looked alive. But it had been completely covered up by a pull-down, store-bought, photographic backdrop of the New York City skyline. I tried to photograph the backdrop in Fort Dix Federal Prison in New Jersey and they told me that they had just painted over the hand-painted backdrop and replaced it with a commercial photography backdrop.


Small prints of Emdur's backdrop photographs on her studio wall, alongside a few examples of her extensive collection of self-help books; photograph by Venue. Notice the hand-painted cityscape with Statue of Liberty on the left.

Of course, another thing is that it’s easier to buy a backdrop than it is to engage with a prisoner, you know? And attitudes vary from prison to prison. In some prisons, you’ll find murals throughout the facility, not just in the visiting rooms. I went on a tour of a privately-operated women’s prison in Florida, for instance, that lasted four hours because there were paintings everywhere—in all the hallways, dorm rooms, and offices. The PR person who assisted me on that tour explained that having prisoners paint murals is really a way to keep them busy and out of trouble, so they saw it as a really positive activity.

Of course, I see these paintings as a way for people in prison to temporarily escape the architecture and culture of confinement, and that’s what makes them so important for me.


Antoine Ealy, Federal Correctional Complex, Coleman, Florida; photograph courtesy Alyse Emdur.

Twilley: There’s an uncomfortable overlap between the escapism of the landscapes and then the other purpose of the backdrops, which is to not allow photographs of the prison interior to get out.

Emdur: Yes—I found that really concerning. The prison administration either thinks that photographs of the interior of the prison could help inmates escape or, at the very least, the administrators are trying to control the imagery of the prison that reaches the outside world.

During my research, I’ve been trying to figure out how long these kinds of backdrops have been used. From prison administrators to PR people to wardens and prisoners, everyone told me they don’t even remember—these kinds of painted backdrops have been used in visiting rooms for as long as they can remember. I’ve spoken to a sixty-five-year-old warden who just said, “You know, they’ve been here longer than I have.”


Robert RuffBey, United States Penitentiary, Atlanta, Georgia; photograph courtesy Alyse Emdur.

I do know that at some point in the last twenty years, companies came along that would charge inmates to substitute in a different backdrop. If you’re a prisoner and you have a photograph of yourself or yourself and your kids in front of the painted backdrop in the visiting room, then you could send your photograph to one of these companies and they would take out the painting and then put in a Photoshop background. That’s not very common at all, but it’s pretty bizarre—one fake landscape being replaced by another.

Going along with that is the replacement of Polaroid with digital photography. All these portraits were Polaroid up until the last five to ten years, I would say. Some prisons still use Polaroids, but from what I gather, it’s basically all digital now.


Prison Visiting Room Backdrop, Shawangunk Correctional Facility, New York; photograph by Alyse Emdur. Unlike the family portraits, Emdur's own large-format photographs deliberately show the prison context that surrounds the backdrop landscape, for an unsettling contrast.


One of sixteen binders full of letters and prisoner portraits mailed to Emdur; photograph by Venue.

One thing to remember is that all the prisons have slightly different rules and they all organize their prison portrait programs differently. In most state and federal prisons in America, the only place where a prisoner can be photographed is in front of these backdrops, and the only time they can be photographed in front of the backdrops is when they have a visitor—but then there are all these exceptions. At some prisons, for instance, you can get your picture taken at special events, like graduations or holiday parties. Then some prisons have murals elsewhere in the prison, not in the visiting room, that you can sign up once a month or something to have your picture taken in front of.


Kimberly Buntyn, Valley State Prison for Women, Chowchilla, California; photograph courtesy Alyse Emdur.

This question of the kinds of images of prisons that are allowed out is quite interesting. In fact, I’m working with a photographer who’s been in prison for almost 30 years in Michigan, on what I think will be my next book. In the 1970s and 80s, he ran the photo lab in Jackson Prison, and he was in charge of developing and printing all the inmates’ photographs. At that time, the rules of photography were very different in prison—there just weren’t as many rules, basically. This guy has hundreds of photographs from all over Jackson State Prison.

It’s just fascinating to see the differences between these very staged and framed visiting room portraits and the reality of the prison as seen through this guy’s eyes—through an insider’s eyes. I think his situation was extremely rare when it happened, but today it’s totally unheard of. The majority of photographs that come out of prisons today are these visiting room portraits. I suppose some prisoners are smuggling cell phones with cameras into prison, but those images aren’t easy to find!


Binders full of letters and prisoner portraits mailed to Emdur; photograph by Venue.


One of sixteen binders full of letters and prisoner portraits mailed to Emdur; photograph by Venue. Several of Emdur's pen-pals adopted the "prison pose," a low crouch, while others incorporated props or flexed their muscles.

Geoff Manaugh: Both Nicky and I were amazed by the amount of correspondence you’ve gathered in the process of researching these backdrops—binder after binder organized and shelved in your studio—but I can’t imagine that it’s been easy to edit it all down into a book, or to get releases from all the prisoners, for example. How has that process worked?

Emdur: It’s been really tough. With 2.3 million Americans in prison today, just think how many of these portrait studio photographs there are circulating in family albums and frames all across the country. A big part of me wants to document more and more and more. But, for a book, I figured it was really important to step back a little bit and not go crazy, and instead try to focus and pull out the different genres of backdrops and the different poses and the stories.

In terms of the process of getting releases, that was a huge effort. As you know, I collected the images through contacting prisoners on pen-pal websites. I sent out something like 300 letters and about 150 inmates responded really quickly with photographs of themselves in front of these backdrops.

A lot of prisoners are looking for engagement with the outside world, so it was very easy to collect the images. The challenging thing was getting releases for publication. Tracking down people who’d been released was one thing. For minors, we wanted to get our release approvals from both the incarcerated parents and also from the non-incarcerated parents, and that really was challenging.


One of sixteen binders full of letters and prisoner portraits mailed to Emdur; photograph by Venue.

But, really, the most difficult thing for me about this project is just how emotionally challenging it is—how draining it is—to correspond with hundreds of people who have a very different reality than I have and live a very different life than I do and who don’t have the privileges that I would normally take for granted.

The relationship between the incarcerated and the free is a very complex relationship, and that’s something that I’m interested in showing in the book, and that I hope comes out in the correspondence.



Map of the city of New York and island of Manhattan as laid out by the commissioners appointed by the Legislature, April 3, 1807, published in 1811, from the collection of the New York Public Library

Last year, the Manhattan street grid celebrated its 200th birthday.

The grid was originally proposed in 1811, by Gouverneur Morris, surveyor John Rutherfurd, and New York State Surveyor General Simeon De Witt, four years after the city council appointed them "Commissioners of Streets and Roads," charged with master-planning the city's expansion from its dense base on Manhattan's southern tip.

In their proposal, the Commissioners explained that they had deliberately avoided embellishments such as "circles, ovals, and stars," in favor of a regular grid of twelve north-south avenues criss-crossed with east-west streets. Their scheme, they wrote, would ensure "free and abundant circulation of air" to combat disease, and had the added benefit that "straight-sided and right-angled houses are the most cheap to build."

They did not mention, however, that alongside the economic and public health benefits embedded in their design is also an astronomical calendar.


The sun creeps into view behind Madam Tussaud's. Manhattanhenge photographs by Nicola Twilley.

Twice each year, the setting sun aligns perfectly with the angle of the street grid (which is thirty degrees off from true north). The phenomenon has been dubbed Manhattanhenge, most notably by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, and it is quite spectacular: for a few minutes, the enlarged red ball of the sun hovers above the pavement, nestled perfectly in the cradle of the dark skyscraper canyon, and sends a shaft of glowing orange light down each street before dropping out of sight.



Of course, this cosmic phenomenon is not limited to Manhattan. Any city built on a relatively uninterrupted grid will experience its own days of alignment, and, provided it has the right balance of street-width and skyscraper-height to produce a sun-sized notch, it, too, can be called a henge: hence Chicagohenge and Torontohenge, and no doubt others besides.

Manhattanhenge is also not limited to sunset; however, the sunrise alignments take place in December and January, and the cold weather, combined with the early hour and more cluttered eastern horizon, makes it a much less popular event.

But the sunsets of Manhattanhenge have gradually turned into minor public festivals, with camera and phone-waving crowds gathered in the middle of popular cross-streets (14th, 23rd, 34th, 42nd, and 57th), careless of traffic. Their behavior attracts yet more people, demanding to know what's going on, as well as a horn accompaniment from blocked taxis, and, combined with the astronomical light show, it feels as though Manhattan is sharing an unofficial 15-minute celebration (and pedestrian takeover of the streets).



Clouds and rain obscured the first Manhattanhenge of 2012 in May, but the July 11 full sunset was spectacular, and Venue got back from visiting an atomic clock in Boulder, Colorado, just in time to document it.

This idea that a city can be a clock, with its own solstices, seems to be an accident worth making intentional. From constellations to comets, what other cyclical astronomical events could be given a spectacular frame by the built environment? Landscape architecture blog Pruned, for instance, recently put out a call for speculative designs for a "pavilion for viewing the coming intergalactic collision between Andromeda and the Milky Way," but the list of possible overlaps between astronomy and the urban environment is all but infinite.

"Oil Spill #2," Discoverer Enterprise, Gulf of Mexico, May 11, 2010. Photograph by Edward Burtynsky.

Venue's debut last week at the Nevada Museum of Art coincided with the premiere of a new exhibition there: Edward Burtynsky: Oil.

This thematic show, on display through September 23, features nearly fifty large-format images that, taken together, tell the story of oil, from its origins, extraction, and processing in the tar sands of Alberta or the first offshore platforms in Azerbaijan, through the spaghetti junctions and motorcycle rallies that represent oil's spatial, infrastructural, and cultural footprint, all the way to oil's afterlife in mountains of compacted barrels and broken tankers in the Bay of Bengal.


"Breezewood," Pennsylvania, USA, 2008. Photograph by Edward Burtynsky. A gap of under a mile between freeway sections gave rise to this landscape of franchises and gas stations, now known (at least to roadgeeks) as a "breezewood."

After a tour of the exhibition, followed by a lecture that introduced some of Burtynsky's most recent work—a global portrait of the human relationship with water—Venue set up in the Center for Art + Environment library for a conversation with Edward Burtynsky. We could not have asked for a more interesting subject for our project's inaugural interview.

The following edited transcript of our discussion ranges from drones, film-making, and the future of photography to the response of Vermont quarry owners to Burtynsky's work, by way of truck beauty pageants, pipelines, and the unexpected challenge of photographing Niagara Falls.

• • •

"Talladega Speedway #1," Birmingham, Alabama, USA, 2009. Photograph by Edward Burtynsky.

Geoff Manaugh: Particularly in your early work, here seems to be a focus on what I might call primary landscapes: looking at where the oil actually comes out of the ground, where the rock is physically cut from the quarry, or where our products are first assembled, and so on. But there’s also a move, particularly in the Oil series, toward representing secondary landscapes—landscapes of consumption, where the oil is burned in the name of a NASCAR race, or where truck drivers enter their big rigs in truck beauty pageants.

I’m curious, though, if you would ever be tempted to pursue your subject to the next step—that is, to a kind of tertiary landscape. For instance, with your current water project, would you be tempted to photograph, say, a family eating tomatoes that were grown in a greenhouse in southern Spain or someone drinking bottled water at the gym? And if not, why not?

Edward Burtynsky: I haven’t really thought of taking it to that tertiary place. I’ve always been interested in systems that are scaled out to the point at which the collective impact is visible, versus the individual act of consumption. In fact, I think it would be very hard to make an image of that act of individual consumption. It just doesn’t fit into what I’ve been doing.

When I’m photographing these systems—systems of extraction, or really just systems of urban expansion, in general—what’s happening is that I have an idea and I’m trying to find the best or most accessible stand-in for that idea. I’ll look at many candidates, and very few will actually get photographed, and even fewer will make it through the editing process.

I’ve certainly gone to places like vegetable packaging plants, but then I’m looking at bagged carrots en masse, rather than a single example of a carrot in somebody’s refrigerator. In fact, I did a whole series on vegetable packing plants back in 1982, and I got into the Heinz Ketchup plant and so on. To me, that’s more interesting.

I think the key to my work is that most things I show are things that we rarely get in front of. We get in front of produce departments in grocery stores quite regularly, so there just isn’t something I feel I can say about that that we don’t usually know already.

Nicola Twilley: And the idea of showing these unfamiliar landscapes is to reconnect us to them?

Burtynsky: Yes, exactly. I’m looking for the disconnected landscapes that provide us with the materials we need to live, build, and do everything we do. Showing the greenhouses in Spain that provide fruits and vegetables for most of Europe is interesting—but to actually show those vegetables on a counter is too far, I think. It’s implied that we eat them at some point.

Twilley: Perhaps you’d actually rather have the viewer make that connection for themselves?

Burtynsky: I think so, yes.


"Oil Fields #19a," Belridge, California, USA, 2003. Photograph by Edward Burtynsky.

Twilley: I’m curious about the challenges of making still images of what are very dynamic systems. For example, earlier this morning in your lecture here at the Nevada Museum of Art, you were describing the Kern oilfield as a very kinetic landscape; you talked about the flow of oil and the machinic soundscape. Are there aspects of these landscapes that you struggle to capture in still photography, and do you ever think of experimenting with film?

Burtynsky: Well, I am starting to work with film. I haven’t filmed independently yet, but I am currently in the process of co-directing a film. It’s following the project I’m doing on water, so, everywhere I go now, I’ve got a film crew with me.

Twilley: Are you working with them to document your photography process, or more as an additional way to document the water systems you’re hoping to portray?

Burtynsky: Both. There are things that I’m taking still photographs of that probably aren’t going to translate very well onto film, and there are things that I can’t make stills of that are better suited to be filmed—and then there are subjects that can handle both. I’m finding that there are elements of all three categories in the film we’re currently working on.

I don’t know if you’ve seen Manufactured Landscapes, but photography is the authoring thread through that film, and I want to do the same thing for water, too. In some ways, it’s the stills that I’m making that are going to determine where the film goes. How we bring them into play in the actual movie is all part of the experience of going into the editing room and figuring out what makes sense where.

But when it gets down to making the film—to the logic of the film—I think all our doors should be open in terms of how to do it. I’m of the belief that you pursue your interests, you pull it all in, and you sort it out later.


"Oil Refineries #23," Oakville, Ontario, Canada, 1999. Photograph by Edward Burtynsky.

Manaugh: It’s clear that there’s an environmental consciousness animating much of your work, but it’s also true, I think, that there is a way of looking at your photographs of, for instance, large oilscapes that could read into them a kind of industrial heroism. In some of the works—such as the footprints in the sand with oil bleeding through, or the ship-breaking yards—the human presence seems to add a clear critical dimension. But in your shots of these often strangely beautiful, cathedral-like refineries, or even of the Talladega raceway, I’m curious how you manage to balance a kind of activist environmental agenda with photographs that might otherwise be seen as very formal or simply very aesthetic. Also, how does your use of other media, such as lecturing or film, work to make your critical approach more clear?

Burtynsky: I’d say, actually, that I’ve been careful not to frame the work in an activist or political kind of way. That would be too restrictive in terms of how the work can be used in society and how it can be interpreted. I see the work as being a bit like a Rorschach test. If you see an oil field and you see industrial heroism, then perhaps you’re some kind of entrepreneur in the oil business and you’re thinking, “That’s great! That’s money being made there!” But, if you’re somebody from Greenpeace or whatever, you’re going to see it very differently. Humans can really reveal themselves through what they choose to see as the most important or meaningful detail in an image.

I actually have a funny story about this. After spending about six years and two shows on the Rock of Ages quarries in Vermont, I wanted to do a trade with them: a print for some granite slabs to make countertops in my country house up North. I met with them and I brought ten of my favorite pictures of their quarries. Most of them were of abandoned sections of the quarries. So I rolled them all out—and they were big, 40-by-50-inch prints—and the whole board was there. And they were totally silent.

After this uncomfortable, pregnant pause, I said, “So… what do you guys think?” Someone—I think it was the director of the quarry—finally said, “Why would anybody want one of these?” [laughter]

I’d never really had it put to me in that way! I said something like, “Well, because they’re interesting pictures and they talk about our taking of a resource from the land. It’s about that accumulated taking—the residual evidence of that taking—and then nature bouncing back into that void. You can see it struggling back into that space.”

And he replied, “These just aren’t very interesting for us.” Well, actually, he said, “These are a sorry sight for us, because these are places where we can’t get any more stone out of the ground, and we have to go somewhere else. They’re the end of the line for us. We wouldn’t want to have to be reminded of that everyday.”

I asked whether that meant the deal was off, and they said, “Oh, no, you can go photograph the latest thing we’ve found with all the machines still working on it.” And I did. It never entered my oeuvre, but I photographed it and I got the countertops.

Twilley: So the quarry has an “off-label” Burtynsky, as it were?

Burtynsky: That’s right. In fact, eighty percent of what the quarry produced went to make gravestones, so I blew up a big picture for them to take to a monument fair.


"Rock of Ages # 26," Abandoned Section, E.L. Smith Quarry, Barre, Vermont, 1991. Photograph by Edward Burtynsky.

Twilley: The question of access is one I’m really interested in. Earlier, you said it took you three years to set up a photograph of the motorcycle rally in Sturgis, but I imagine it’s even harder to get into places like oil refineries. Have you heard of any responses from the oil industry to your series?

Burtynsky: No, I haven’t. I must say, for the most part, that the oil industry isn’t very enlightened. In most cases, they said no when I asked to come in and make photographs, because they couldn’t see an upside to letting me in. They couldn’t see why. They could only see a downside.

One place I tried to get into is the Ghawar oil field in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia supplies ten to eleven million barrels a day, and this one oil field—the Ghawar—is the oil field of oil fields. It produces five million barrels a day. I thought it would be great to have that as part of the project narrative. In terms of scale, Ghawar is it. There is no bigger oil field. Even all the tar sand activity in Canada produces between one and a quarter and one and a half million barrels a day, while the Saudis are able to produce five million barrels a day from one oil field. That one field is four times the scale of Canada’s entire oil sands operation.

Twilley: But they said no?

Burtynsky: They said no. I went through a fairly lengthy process all the way to the very top, where I was talking to the minister of petroleum in Saudi Arabia. They basically said that they might have been interested if I had had more of a focus on the human dimension of oil—the people who work there, and so on. They said they thought it was too detached and impersonal.

Manaugh: To go back to something you said at lunch yesterday, you mentioned that you consciously exclude green and blue from your photographs, and that, for the most part, you don’t like to shoot in summer or at certain times of day. You also mentioned the way that the light during “the shoulders of the day”—early morning and late evening—makes space much more volumetric and filled with shadows, and that, conversely, shooting at high noon from 8,000ft helps minimize shadow. I’d love to revisit that conversation in the context of this interview and hear more about the role of color, light, and shadow in your work.

Burtynsky: I love the tones of browns and grays—I love more neutral tones. That’s why I like going to the desert and working in the desert. I find that green trees and things like that have a tendency to lock us into a certain way of seeing. When I look at green trees on a sunny day, I don’t know how to make an interesting picture of that. We’re familiar with that already.

Instead, I like the transparency that comes when leaves are off and you can look deeper into the landscape—you can look through the landscape. When I did try to make those kind of green-tree/sunny-day pictures, I’d find myself not ever putting them up and not ever using them. Eventually, I just said, well, I’m not going to take them anymore, because they never make it past the edit.

There’s a certain point where you learn from your own editing. You just stop taking certain pictures because they never make it through. Your editing starts to inform your thinking, as far as where you want to go and what you want to look for when you’re making a photograph.

That what’s different about me after thirty years of doing this kind of work—there are a lot of pictures I don’t have to take anymore. I think that’s called wisdom—learning what not to waste your time on!

Twilley: Do you have a ratio, or a sense of how many photographs you take vs. how many actually make it into the final show?

Burtynsky: My ratio has changed over time, certainly. I used to shoot 8 x 10 film, and, with that, my ratio was pretty high—something like one out of six or one out of seven images would make it through. With 4 x 5, because it’s faster and a little easier, which means there can be a little more risk-taking, my ratio would have been closer to one in twelve or one in fifteen. With digital, now, where everything is dematerialized and I’m up in the air, I’m shooting probably one to 100.

Twilley: Returning to the idea of avoiding blue skies and green trees, I was thinking back to your earlier comment about wanting to show us things that we don’t usually get in front of, places and things that are unfamiliar. In a way, green leaves and blue skies are too familiar—that’s the nature we already know as nature.


"Oil Fields #22," Cold Lake, Alberta, Canada, 2001. Photograph by Edward Burtynsky. Note the extremely rare inclusion of green trees!

Burtynsky: You know it already, so how do you say something new about it? It locks us into a cliché, or a genre of understanding. We immediately understand it, so there’s nothing there.

I just came back from a conference on the future of photography, where we had an interesting conversation around this. One of the curators of a museum in Switzerland had invited students from any art school, anywhere in the world to submit work to be included in a survey of photography of the new generation. The one thing that was consistent in 1,200 submissions was that not one of the students was showing anything that had to do with spontaneity. Spontaneity was gone completely.

There were no pictures with light coming through the glass on the table or a Robert Frank kind of street photograph or a decisive moment photograph—nothing like that at all. It was all very staged and all very deliberate—not photography as the act of seeing the world or reacting to seeing the world, but rather a photography of crafting things in the studio. We didn’t find one that varied from that, which I thought was fascinating.

We were wondering, why this is? In school, are they teaching that all the possibilities for taking photographs of reality and interpreting reality and reacting to reality in a spontaneous way have all been done? There seemed to be a feeling that there is no new narrative that can be found by pursuing that avenue of representation, and that they have to move into creating their own world.

Twilley: Perhaps it’s also a response to the fact that everyone now has a camera on them at all times, and so those photos—those spontaneous shots of decisive moments and everyday life—are, in fact, being taken, but they’ve been claimed, in a sense, by iPhones and Instagram, so students need to do something different to be photographers today, rather than just people with a camera.

Burtynsky: That might be the case—it could be a response to the way that we’re all now awash in images. So how do you define yourself? That spontaneous way of making imagery has become an avenue that the next generation doesn’t see as worthy of pursuit because it won’t yield anything that the world hasn’t already put out there.

I think there is an anxiety about the status of the photograph amongst the new practitioners coming in. I have certain anxieties, too, of course, but, I think because I’ve had such an arc of existing work that I continue to build on as an artist, that I don’t feel as much anxiety about using the real world as my palette or as my template, to draw from. I don’t feel compelled to start staging my imagery or moving away from recording “reality” on some level in order to achieve a deeper subjective experience, and I think it’s because I came out of an analogue, more traditional way of approaching photography. Photography was a way to put a window onto the world and to enter into the world. For me, photography is a way to mine ideas that are things.

Manaugh: I’d like to ask another question about the future of photography. As a writer, something that always catches my eye are stories about how they’re working on an artificial intelligence bot that can actually write a sports recap or a movie review on its own. The idea is that things like descriptions of football games are so formulaic that, in the future, a robot will write it, churning out sentences like, “Quarterback X threw for a certain amount of yards for a victory in the last quarter against team Y,” and so on. In and of itself, this is culturally fascinating, of course—but, as a writer, I am particularly fascinated by what it means for the future of my craft.

From the point of view of a photographer, then, it might seem equally interesting that there are now all sorts of new types of photographic systems on the rise—quadcopter-mounted 3D scanners, drones, and even smart ammunition equipped with cameras that can loiter in an area taking aerial photographs. Simply on a technical level, I’m curious about where you see the future of photography going. Do you see a time when you’re not going to be riding in a helicopter over Los Angeles but, instead, piloting a little drone that’s flying around up there and taking photographs for you?

Burtynsky: I’m already doing it.

Twilley: You have a drone?

Burtynsky: Yeah. I use it to go into places where I don’t have any air space. I work with a team. One guy runs the chopper, one guy runs the head, and I take the shutter release and compose. For example, there is no civil aviation space in China, so I was using it there. I used it to shoot the big dam area, and I used it to photograph agriculture.

So I am already using that technology. It offers new ways of entering into places that you would never have considered going—or that you couldn’t even go to—before.

The pictures I’ve been taking of irrigation circles now as part of the water project—that’s something I think would not have been possible to do very easily even just five years ago. It would be almost impossible with film to splice those images together so well and not have it look weirdly distorted or problematic. With Photoshop, and with digital files, you’ve got contrast control, the removal of haze, color filtration, and all of that, so I’m able to do things that, again, were not even conceivable five years ago.

"Dam #6," Three Gorges Dam Project, Yangtze River, 2005. Photograph by Edward Burtynsky.

Manaugh: I’m curious about how you know when a series is done, when you’ve said all you wanted to say about a certain them or topic. For instance, I think you said that the water series will be finished in 2013—but how do you know when to put an end to certain things? Is it that there is literally a checklist of sites you want to get to, or is there a more subtle narrative sense of completion that you’re looking for?

Burtynsky: Well, by 2013, I will have been working on water for almost five years. It’s unlike a lot of my other series, in that I’m not doing any other projects right now. During the oil series, I did a whole series in China, and I still kept doing quarries along the way. I did a lot of other things while pursuing the idea of oil systems, and the kinds of landscapes that come from them.

For this water project, I gave myself a five-year time period and that’s all I’m concentrating on. I’ve dropped quarries and I’ve dropped oil, pretty much—except for the Gulf oil spill, which I saw as this historic-scale, crossover event with oil and water, a moment when the two liquids that I have been pursuing for so long were put into such an unhappy marriage. I thought it was worth the chance to go, to see them both in one place; and I think it worked.

But the 2013 date puts a hard stop on the project. It’s not to say that I won’t ever take more images of water—or, for that matter, of oil—but it’s a chance to consolidate the work, to put a book and movie together, and to put something out there for people to react to and see. I don’t think it means that either oil or water will be closed off the way I closed off quarries.

In fact, it’s interesting that once I move away from a series, I can go by those landscapes all day long and I won’t see them anymore. It’s like I’ve just switched it off. I know it’s still there, of course, and, if I went back, I could still find those kinds of things again; but I don’t look for them anymore. To me, the photographic image is an idea that you put into your consciousness, and then you go out in the world in search of manifestations of it. It’s a very idea-driven process—but that also means than, once the idea is expressed, I don’t necessarily go looking for it anymore. I’ve done it.

"Dryland Farming #7," Monegros County, Aragon, Spain, 2010. Photograph by Edward Burtynsky.

Twilley: I want to end with a question about where the water project is going next, and, in particular, whether there’s any aspect of water that is proving particularly tricky to capture or perhaps more productive than you originally expected?

Burtynsky: Probably the trickiest bit right now is source: where water comes from. It’s so riddled with clichés. That’s actually where I might end up using film, because it might be able to carry the cliché better than still photographs.

I also gave myself another challenge, which is something I grew up next door to: I’ve been trying to figure out, is there any way I can photograph Niagara Falls without making it a cliché? And I haven’t done it yet. Andreas Gursky shot the Maid of the Mist and it was very postcard-y—but I think he meant it to refer to the postcard tradition. I’m working on it, and I’m trying to figure it out, but it’s hard. I keep looking at Niagara Falls, thinking, “Great. Now what?”


You're looking at something pretty amazing: a photograph of a photograph taken by Edward Burtynsky, one of the world's most celebrated landscape photographers, especially for Venue.

Except that Burtynsky took the photograph using Matt Richardson's Descriptive Camera — our guest device on this leg of Venue's travels — which means that, instead of Burtynsky's carefully selected and composed image, we instead have a short description written by an anonymous worker for a $1.25 reward.

For those of you who are not familiar with it, the Descriptive Camera works by sending the images it captures off to Amazon's Mechanical Turk jobs board, where anyone, based anywhere in the world, can choose to accept the task of describing it for a fee.

In this case, our lucky anonymous worker saw a brand new photograph by Edward Burtynsky, entered a few lines of text, and then hit send. Back in the bright yellow service staircase of the Nevada Museum of Art, we waited patiently till their description printed out, like a receipt, from the front of the camera.


A quick snapshot of Burtynsky taking the photo in question. We gave him 24 hours to select a subject in the museum, and this was the spot that caught his eye. Photograph by Geoff Manaugh.

And there it is: "A network of pipes, having valves and joints with meters between them." Burtynsky, in someone else's words.

The shooting of this photograph followed a morning of hearing Burtynsky in his own words, in a special lecture at the Nevada Museum of Art on the occasion of the opening of his new Oil exhibition, followed by a fascinating conversation with Venue—our inaugural interview—during which we discussed drones, collective acts of consumption, his deliberate avoidance of the colors green and blue, and the seemingly impossible challenge of making a compelling photograph of Niagara Falls.

We'll be posting the full transcript of that conversation, with images, online here shortly.
 
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